Austrian Questions

In searching to understand my Austrian heritage, I was able to find a few further generations of the Hochreiter family who lived in the Mühlviertel. This region consists of the four Upper Austrian districts that lie north of the river Danube: Rohrbach, Urfahr-Umgebung (where my ancestors were from), Freistadt and Perg. The parts of the state capital Linz that lie north of the Danube also belong to the Mühlviertel.

My grandfather Johann’s father, as I have said, was also named Johann Hochreiter. Johann, Sr. was the son of Michael Hochreiter (who would be my great-great-grandfather), born in 1832 in Waldschlag (now Oberneukirchen) and Theresia Foisner (my great-great-grandmother) who was born in 1828. She had an earlier marriage to Joseph Waldhör in 1851, at age 23. (Joseph was born in Unterwaldschlag, also Oberneukirchen). They had two sons, and then later Theresia married Michael Hochreither in Oberneukirchen on 13th of July 7, 1856, when she was age 28 and Michael was 24. They had four sons: Johann, Franz, Joseph, and Matthias, all of whom lived to marry and have children. (The records I have don’t indicate if there were any other children who did not survive.)

I also found each of their parents listed: Theresia’s parents were Michael Foisner and Cäcilia Pichler. Michael’s parents were Philipp Hochreiter (who came from Bad Leonfelden) and Theresia Rammerstorfer.

One of the ways I try to learn about my ancestors is simply to look up their towns on Google Maps. Bad Leonfelden is about 12-13 kilometers northeast of Oberneukirchen, and 28 kilometers north of Linz.  When I zoomed into Bad Leonfelden, a few businesses appeared with “Hochreiter” in the name. So that’s cool. Bad means “bath” in German, and there are spa mud baths in the town. It is only 6 kilometers south of the border with the Czech Republic.Oberneukirchen

A Wikipedia listing for Oberneukirchen said that settlement and then village life probably started in the area in the 12th century.  Around the year 1500 agriculture and the weaving industry served as the main source of income. Very important was the trade in flax and linen, and also in wood, wine and salt. So it is possible that my ancestors lived there a very long time.  In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the area was occupied several times, and in 1809 there were major fires that destroyed many buildings in Oberneukirchen.

But what did it mean to be Austrian? After learning about the Swabian roots of some other Germanic ancestors, I wondered what kind of “Germanic” the Austrians might be. I found out the question has many historical complications. Some sources indicate that the Austrians and Bavarians were essentially the same culturally and linguistically. Austria is just to the east of Bavaria. But when Germany was nationalizing from smaller kingdoms and duchies and so on, Austria was a rival to Prussia, and there were also fierce Protestant/Catholic rivalries.  According to Leif Jerram, (Senior Lecturer in History, University of Manchester, UK) on Quora.com,

Historically, Bavaria and Austria were much more similar. At the time of the formation of the modern state of Germany in the 1860s-70s, Bavarian politicians very much wanted Austria inside the new nation – they shared Roman Catholicism. Further, at that time, Bavaria tended to be more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the new state of Germany, and they wished to be able to preserve that. The Prussian elites who forced the unification of Germany, however (through warfare and blackmail), wanted to ensure that a) Catholics would be in a minority in the new nation, and b) that Prussian aristocratic elites would not face any competition for political power. If Austria were included, then many more Catholics would be included in the new state, and the might of the Austrian empire (such as it was – let’s say its wealth and prestige) would mean Prussian aristocratic landholders would have to make many compromises. So, Austria was excluded from the new state, and Catholics were vigorously persecuted as a minority for the first 20-or-so years of its foundation.

The history of the place seems incredibly complex, (but that seems true of most places I’ve tried to learn about in Europe.) A decisive moment for these developments was the Austro-Prussian War, in the summer of 1866.  Each side had ally states who were part of the loosely bound German Confederation, but the Prussians won that seven week war, and shaped the resulting eventual German Empire to the exclusion of Austria. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was then established in 1867 in the aftermath, as a constitutional monarchy (with Austria and Hungary as equal partners) that lasted until 1918.

So my grandfather’s parents and grandparents would have lived through these and other–often violent–transitions, but who knows how much or how little they were involved or effected by them personally in their small rural villages.  All of this helps me to understand just a little of the complex relationship between Austria and Germany in the World Wars of the twentieth century, (though my grandfather and all of my other Germanic ancestors) were gone from Europe by then. In each of those conflicts, there were some people who wanted Austria to be part of a wider Germany, and in the resulting peace treaties, that was explicitly forbidden. No wonder I find it all very confusing.

 

Johann Hochreiter

John Hochreiter at 31

John Hochreiter at 31

My most recent ancestor immigrant to this continent was my grandfather, John Hochreiter. He was born “Johann” on June 1, 1884 in Linz, Austria, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Johann Hochreiter (senior), born 1857, was a day-laborer originally from the village of Waldschlag, (now part of the town of Oberneukirchen), in the northern part of Upper Austria, an area called Mühlviertel. From the information I can gather, the next few generations of ancestors were from that area as well. His mother was born Anna Bartl, about 1851, daughter of the weaver Michael Bartl and his wife Katharina.

I turned to etymology for some clues this time. The name “Hochreiter” originally meant those persons who made higher-lying surfaces arable, who cleared forested areas for farms. “Wald schlag might mean “Forest Strike”, and “Ober neu kirchen” is “Upper New Churches.” According to Wikipedia, settlement and then village life probably started in the area of ​​the municipality Oberneukirchen in the 12th century. The spread and colonization of the forest clearing areas and the religious care of the settlers soon made a chapel or church building required.  One last etymology: “Mühlviertel” translates “Mill Quarter.” The Oberneukirchen economy was centered around agriculture and weaving for several centuries.

However, Johann and Anna did not stay in this rural area, the place of their families. For some reason, I would guess related to work, they moved about 25 kilometers south to the city of Linz where Johann was a day-laborer. It was in the city that their children were born—they had at least five sons, Johann (junior) in 1884, Georg in 1885, Franz in 1888, Franz Joseph in 1892, and Julius in 1895. (I seem to remember hearing stories that my grandfather was the oldest of several brothers—even eight, but that number might be a error.) They later also died in the city of Linz, in 1933 and 1930.

My mom told of a story that my grandfather as a young man had carried bread on his back to deliver it, or another story was that he delivered beer by horse-drawn cart. But in any case, at some point he became a waiter, and remained so until his retirement many years later. He left Linz in his twenties, somewhere about 1910 or 11, with a group of buddies, working as waiters in hotels as they traveled, going first to France, and then England. Finally they took the ship called “Lake Manitoba” and landed in Quebec, Canada on June 16, 1912. Then, he worked as a waiter at the new, and very grand, Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It was there he met my grandmother, Yvonne Tremblay, who worked as a chamber maid.

In late 1915, John emigrated once again, traveling via Windsor to Detroit, Michigan. By this point, Canada had entered the first World War, and he was registered as an “enemy alien.” I wonder if that contributed to his decision to come to the United States, which was still a neutral country. (According to that registration, in 1915 at 31 he was 5’3”, weighed 125 pounds, and had dark hair, and wore glasses.) He soon sent for Yvonne, and they were married in Detroit on January 14, 1916. She was just 18.

John & Yvonne Hochreiter 1916

John and Yvonne in Detroit 1916

They stayed in Detroit, and he worked as a room service waiter at the Hotel Statler (which had been completed earlier in 1915), until he retired (at 70) after my grandmother died in l954.

When I have wondered about why he left Austria, I haven’t found clear answers. It was a few years before war would break out there, so I don’t think it was about that. It seems perhaps he and his friends were looking for adventure, and they’d found a way to do it even without many financial resources.  As waiters, they could work wherever they could find hotel jobs.  I was impressed that these men continued to be friends years later in Detroit. My grandfather was a quiet man, and he died when I was only 13, so I never felt that I knew him very well.

Ironically, even though my siblings and I are of 25% Austrian ancestry, and our grandfather was the most recent immigrant of our heritage, I found it difficult to find a sense of connection to that culture and place. It has bewildered me as I have continued to explore the region in Austria from which he came. I’ll write more in a future post.

Loving the Body

Thinking of this post again today…

Finding Our Way Home

Sassy and Billy bath

Today is a day when I chose to stop my plans and just love my body and follow what it needed.  My teachers were our cats Billie and Sassy who were having a cuddle and a nap in the sun on the bed, washing each other’s faces.  I lay down next to them, and took a few photos with my phone.  Sometimes, even in this desperately wounded world, we must honor the demands of our bodies, first of all.  This I what I am learning about illness or whatever it is that has taken hold of my body.  My own tendency is to want to figure it out and fix it. But some things can’t be easily figured or fixed.  And so we are faced with other choices.

When my partner Margy and first I got to know each other, she had been dealing with chronic illness for a long…

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The Swabian Alb

As I researched my Swabian roots, I realized that one eighth of my ancestral heritage is most likely tied to that place. One aspect of the decolonization process is for those of us with non-native ancestry to explore our roots in other places across the globe, places in which our ancestors might hold their own Indigeneity.  I found myself strangely moved yesterday as I watched Youtube videos about Swabia. See here is the thing:  before this week, I had never even heard of Swabia.  This is the forgetting that comes over so many families through several generations in the United States.

We begin to amalgamate, and make reference to a vague Germanic ancestry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that each of my various family lines came from distinct cultures and landscapes that are now considered “German.”  I want to record some things about that Swabian culture and place–nothing that can’t be found in Wikipedia and other online sources–but new to me. (Most of this is just copy and paste or mildly edited from public domain sources.)

Germany was slowly becoming unified over the 18th and 19th centuries (mostly after my ancestors had emigrated.)  This process was politically dominated by the northern Kingdom of Prussia, and therefore “Weimar Classicism” became the expression of German national “high culture.” As a consequence, southern Germany and by extension both the Swabians and the Bavarians came to be seen as deviations from a generic standard German, and a number of clichés or stereotypes developed about them.

These portrayed the Swabians as stingy, overly serious, or prudish petty bourgeois simpletons, for example as reflected in “The Seven Swabians” story published by the Brothers Grimm. On the positive side, however, the same stereotypes may be expressed in portraying the Swabians as frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Realistically, they lived on a land with thin soil and difficult access to water, so likely they had to be frugal and hard-working to survive.

The Swabian Alb (or Swabian Jura) occupies the region bounded by the Danube River in the southeast and the upper Neckar River in the northwest. In the southwest it rises to the higher mountains of the Black Forest. The highest mountain of the region is the Lemberg (1,015 m.). The area’s profile resembles a high plateau, which slowly falls away to the southeast. The northwestern edge is a steep escarpment covered with forests, while the top is flat or gently rolling.

The geology of the Swabian Alb is mostly limestone, which formed the seabed during the Jurassic period. The sea receded 50 million years ago. Since limestone is soluble in water, rain seeps through cracks everywhere and forms subterranean rivers which flow through a large system of caves until they emerge. Thus there are hardly any rivers, lakes or other forms of surface water on the plateau.

Many different types of beautiful caves can be found there, from dry dripstone caves to caves that can only be entered by boat. Sometimes the discharge of the water from subterranean rivers can be spectacular, too, for example, the Blautopf, (“Blue Bowl”) a source for a tributary of the Danube.Blue Pot

Also because of the porous limestone, the Danube nearly disappears near Immendingen only to reappear several kilometers further down. Most of the water lost by the Danube resurfaces in the Aachtopf, a spring for a tributary to the Rhine.

Much of the Swabian Alb consists of gentle to moderate hills often covered with forest or cleared for small-scale agriculture. The traditional landscape was grass fields with juniper bushes. Today this has become a comparatively rare sight. However, in certain places it is protected by the government (the province of Baden-Württemberg.) The soil is not very fertile, the humus is often as thin as 10 cm (4 in). Many small limestone pebbles are found on the surface.

Fossils can be found everywhere in the Swabian Alb. In a number of caves (including Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels), all just a few kilometers apart, some of the oldest signs of human artifacts were found. Best known are: a mammoth, a horse head, a water bird, and two statues of a lion man all more than 30,000 years old. The oldest known musical instruments have been found here, too: flutes made from the bones of swans and griffon vultures, some 35,000 years old, and a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age, around 37,000 years ago. Perhaps most astounding is the oldest representation found so far of the human body, the Venus of Hohle Fels.648px-VenusHohlefels2

This Goddess figure, carved from mammoth ivory, and likely worn as a pendant, was found in caves that my very ancient ancestors may have frequented. Of course, people moved around between those ancient times and more recent times, the Celts and the Gauls intermarried with Germanic tribes, but some of the ancestors of the Swabians may have been present even then.

So as I think about my place on this earth, this is one of my places!

 

 

Swabian Roots

I have been delving into the stories of my ancestors again, and the last few days I was researching my great-great-great grandparents, Johann Nepomuk Heisler (b. 1781 in Westerstetten) and Barbara (Zeller) Heisler (b. 1788 in Tomerdingen). They lived in the small town of Westerstetten, in the Swabian Alb, now a part of Germany. 

Johann was a shoemaker and farmer. They were married in 1805, when he was 24 and she was 17, and moved into their house at Haupstrasse 19 in 1806. [The house was built in 1757 and was still there at the turn of this century.] The first of their children was born in 1806, when Barbara was 18. They had 14 children, but several died in childhood, and Barbara herself died at the age of 37 in October of 1825, one week after the birth of her last child. I would say it is likely that she died of childbirth related issues. At that time, only eight children were still living.

Four years later, in 1829, when Johann married his second wife, Magdalena Rimmele, who was 45, only six of the children remained: Jacob was 20, Martha was 13 (and died 5 years later), Nikolas was 11, Johann was 9, Augustin was 8 and Anton was 4. The youngest four boys would eventually emigrate to the United States—but I will talk more about that in separate stories. [One of which can be found here.]

It is uncertain how long the family ancestors had lived in Westerstetten. Their parents are just identified as “German,” in the records I have. But we might conclude that they were from the area of the Swabian Alb, because Johann Nepomuk Heisler’s grandfather Johann Leonhard Heisler is listed as born in Essingen in the north part of the Swabian Alb. His great-great-grandfather is also listed as born in Essingen, and that one’s wife was born in Westerstetten. So the family were most likely of Swabian heritage.

That whole region was part of the Swabian Alb, centered in the city of Ulm, but including both Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen which were each perhaps 15-17 kilometers north of Ulm. Their small town at that time however was on the edge of rival political entities, and they would have experienced many transitions in the early 1800s.

From 1414 to 1803, Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen as well, were part of the territory of Elchingen Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. For much of its history, Elchingen was one of the 40-odd self-ruling imperial abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire and, as such, was a virtually independent state that contained several villages aside from the monastery itself. This meant it was independent of the jurisdiction of any lord, and answered directly to the Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps the devout Catholicism of the Heislers is related to their connection to the Abbey. 

Like all the imperial abbeys, Elchingen lost its independence in the course of the German Mediatisation in 1803 (a secularisation and land redistribution process put in place by the French conquests of Napolean) and the monastery was dissolved. When this happened, the village of Westerstetten was given to the “Elector (and then Kingdom) of Bavaria” along with Elchingen, and the city of Ulm. Seven years later, in 1810, the border between Bavaria and Württemberg was re-negotiated and Westerstetten and Ulm both became part of the “Kingdom of Württemberg.”

The Heislers were most likely struggling villagers during all of this. According to one Wikipedia entry, life was extremely hard in the Swabian Alb. There was a lack of water and the soil was poor in quality. For many villages fetching water required a long journey by horse. Since water often needed to be stored over a long time, it became stagnant. Thus disinfection via alcohol was very popular: “Most” (cider) was mixed with water and even given to babies.

I wonder how much the decision to send four sons to the United States was influenced by these difficult conditions, and by the tumultuous political landscape. As it turned out, only one son remained behind, of all of the 14 children. In 1978, my grandmother Lucille Heisler Johnson wrote to her sister, “I remember Papa (Thomas Heisler) telling us about his father and two brothers coming over from Germany. They all had to be under twenty-one because they left Germany to avoid military service.” The last brother came later on his own. I am beginning to imagine these ancestors.

Abbey of Elchingen

Map of Württemberg before the French Revolutionary Wars, showing the Free Imperial City of Ulm, separating the two parts of the Imperial Abbey of Elchingen, with the Danube shown running through the centre of the image. Cropped from German States Before and since the French Revolution: II. Wurtemberg, from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923, from the Perry-Castañeda map collection. Public Domain 

 

The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.